Golf’s Jackie Robinson honored by President Obama

WASHINGTON — You may never have heard of Charlie Sifford.

I hadn’t. My dad — who taught me the game of golf, and who watches most every
major tournament on TV — hadn’t. Neither had my stepdad, who tuned into the
game beginning in the ’70s, when Jack Nicklaus was making his name.

But you should know Sifford’s legacy, one which will be honored Monday night
by none other than the President of the United States. The first black golfer
to break the PGA color barrier and earn his tour card back in 1961 will be one
of 19 people awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest
civilian honor.

While you may not have heard of Sifford before today, you probably know
several of his fellow honorees: Alvin Ailey; Tom Brokaw; Ethel Kennedy;
Stephen Sondheim; Meryl Streep; and Stevie Wonder, to name a few. Sifford will
join them all at the White House for the ceremony Monday night.

Sifford is often called the Jackie Robinson of golf, but a more apt comparison
might be to the great pitcher Satchel Paige, who wasn’t able to compete in the
Major Leagues until he was already 42 years old. Sifford earned his tour card
in 1961, when he was already 39, well past the prime age for professional
golfers. He went on to win two official money events, and later took home the
1975 PGA Seniors’ Championship.

Sifford was the target of much harassment, including death threats, during his
time on tour. And he never received positive attention for the trials and
tribulations he endured until long after his retirement. But since 2004, he
has been inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, received an honorary
degree from the University of St. Andrews, and had a course in North Carolina
named after him.

At 92 and on three-times-a-week dialysis, Sifford is a man of few words at
this point in his life. But he had enough energy to speak briefly on the phone
about his journey and what this honor means to him.

“It means a lot to me,” he said, then laughed. “I’ve been a pretty good boy.”

He also shared that he and Robinson were friends during their shared struggle,
often playing golf together and speaking with one another at length out on the
golf course. Another man who Sifford became close with through the game was
Earl Woods, father to one of the sport’s most transformative players. Sifford
says he’s taken “quite a bit” of pride in Tiger’s success over his career.

Without Sifford’s efforts, Woods may never have enjoyed the success he has.
However, as Scott Van Pelt pointed out in a recent symposium on race in sports
at the University of Maryland, while golf’s popularity and winnings rose with Woods, the number of black players winning on tour remains at just one.

So what does Sifford think about Woods’ efforts to help grow the game among
the black community?

“Yes, he’s done a good job at that, Tiger,” Sifford said of Woods’ exposure of
the game to minorities.

But as for the failure of those efforts to manifest in
other African-Americans winning on tour?

“Well, the PGA couldn’t do too much more,” he said.

Sifford had a chance to meet President Bill Clinton while he was in office, but

understands there is something additionally special about being honored by a
president who endured a similar struggle as the first to break the racial

“Yes, [we dealt with] a lot of the same issues,” he said.

Sifford’s son, Charlie Sifford Junior, elaborated on how much it means, coming from
President Barack Obama.

“It’s a great honor, especially the fact that he’s presented it by someone of
color,” said Sifford Jr. “It’s like double history happening at the same time.
The whole family is really excited, especially given the hardships he had to
go through to get here.”

His son was the one who picked up the phone to find Air Force One on the other
line, letting him know the honor his father was to receive. And while Sifford
Jr. has personal pride for his father’s achievements, he is more focused on
what they mean for others who hope to follow their own dreams, no matter how
long the odds seem.

“This shows that if you’ve got that talent, determination, willpower and
desire to succeed, anyone can succeed, given a chance.”

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